Following Ed Miliband’s speech in Manchester this week, Labour’s official position is that the UK’s participation in the US-led invasion of Iraq was a mistake. Some people are finding this hard to take – our position until last week was expressed by many MPs as; “if I were presented with the same information now I’d make the same decision”. But so what? The question for today is; “if we’d known there were no WMDs and that there would be an unforseen bloodbath, would we have voted for the war? This is to be wise after the event, of course. But that’s the point. Some people were wise before the event and want us to recognise that. Ed did that in Manchester; people respect it and now we can move on.
I think some folk are finding it hard because to them it suggests a repudiation of all Labour achieved under Tony Blair; indeed of Tony himself. Frankly, that’s daft and it’s to look at the situation through a Blairite/Brownite prism. And yet it is worth remembering how many of Labour’s most successful policies were based in the early days on metrics and evidence. Remember Professor Michael Barber of no.10 with his charts and data? Labour has always been motivated by ideology, but the scale of the early success in social policy was dependent upon well-planned and resourced execution (Ed Balls planned Bank of England independence for years). The Iraq conflict was motivated by ideology, but its execution was also ideological. Every piece of advice from military experts, from Colin Powell to our own at the MoD, was that we would need to commit very large numbers of troops and enormous resources to the post-conflict phase. Rumsfeldian dogma, if you will, was that it could be done quickly with relatively light forces – that would be cheaper and would free up troops for the next rather obvious target.
I think Tony was gripped by how Sierra Leone and the Balkans showed what well-trained and disciplined forces, like we have in the UK, can do to help people in far flung places. But he became captured by the Bush administration’s warfare ideology and the rest is history.
Fast forward to today. The planning assumptions of the Tories, I think, rule out any intervention on the scale of Iraq or Afghanistan in future. That’s why there’s such a spat between Liam Fox and George Osborne. This new Tory assumption is built upon the harsh reality for Tony Blair that Iraq has rendered the kind of interventions he’d seen in Sierra Leone and the Balkans politically impossible. That’s why the David Cameron was so bold in announcing a 2015 pull-out date. And it’s part of why even Trident replacement in now in doubt. It’s why Osborne is so confident.
So where does that leave Labour? Well, on the back foot to be honest. But we can fix that. We’re in need of a new approach to the US and to European allies. They’re all our friends but we need to ensure that as far as we can we are masters of our own common destiny in Europe. The US looks East as much as West these days, and when they look West it’s towards the biggest economic partners. We need to construct a mature European perspective and capability – one which partners the US but is not ideologically subordinate. There is indeed a lot we can do in parts of the world we’ve ignored, like the Eastern Congo, but it won’t be by large scale military intervention. And if we want to protect jobs in the defence industry, we need to flesh out a larger theory of foreign policy and defence.
In the end, if you deify any human it’s going to end in tears. At the Chilcott Inquiry, Tony Blair said the 2010 question was; ‘where would Iraq be today under Saddam?’. For Labour in 2010, he was wrong and Ed is right.